British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Tim Yeo, a Conservative member of the British parliament who publicly espoused traditional family values, fathered a child out of wedlock. The child’s mother was a local Conservative politician and attorney, Julia Stent, who told the media that Yeo was the father of her child. The scandal led to Yeo’s resignation as a government minister, but he remained a member of Parliament. The scandal was a major blow to Prime Minister John Major’s conservative agenda.

Summary of Event

Tim Yeo was a popular member of John Major’s Conservative government in Great Britain, fully backing Major’s so-called Back to Basics agenda. News of his affair with a London attorney and politician, and the subsequent birth of their child, brought his government career to a temporary halt. For the Conservative government, the revelation was a major embarrassment because it had been stressing traditional values, responsibility, and fidelity, especially in family life. Yeo also was a vocal proponent of this agenda. [kw]British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock (Jan. 5, 1994) [kw]Wedlock, British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of (Jan. 5, 1994) Major, John [p]Major, John;and Tim Yeo[Yeo] Stent, Julia Yeo, Tim Major, John [p]Major, John;and Tim Yeo[Yeo] Stent, Julia Yeo, Tim [g]Europe;Jan. 5, 1994: British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock[02620] [g]England;Jan. 5, 1994: British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock[02620] [c]Politics;Jan. 5, 1994: British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock[02620] [c]Sex;Jan. 5, 1994: British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock[02620] [c]Government;Jan. 5, 1994: British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock[02620] [c]Public morals;Jan. 5, 1994: British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock[02620] [c]Families and children;Jan. 5, 1994: British Cabinet Member Resigns After Fathering a Child Out of Wedlock[02620] Horrigan, Aldine

Yeo was born in Lewisham, a suburb in southeastern London, in 1945. He was educated at the prestigious private school Charterhouse in Godalming, Surrey, and then went on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was active in student politics and earned a master’s degree in history in 1968. He gained a position with the Bankers Trust Company in London, and from 1970 to 1973 was an assistant treasurer there. In 1970, he married Diane Helen Pickard, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1975, he became a director of the Worcester Engineering Company, a position he retained until 1986. In 1980, he was appointed chief executive of a major British charity, the Spastics Society, or Scope. He held the post until his parliamentary career began in 1983.

Yeo had tried unsuccessfully to enter Parliament in 1974 as a Conservative Party candidate for the constituency of Bedwelty, Wales, a safe Labour Party seat. He was looking for a more winnable seat when Aldine Horrigan, chairman of the Sudbury South local Conservative Party, backed him to run as the candidate in her constituency, even though a sitting Conservative member of Parliament already was seated. A redrawing of boundaries gave Horrigan the excuse to push for a new candidate in what was technically a new constituency. Yeo was their candidate, and he ran for office in the 1983 election. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher was then at the height of its influence and power, and Yeo was easily elected.

Yeo’s first experience in government office came in 1988, when he was appointed private parliamentary secretary to Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. After Major defeated Thatcher to become prime minister, subsequently winning the next election, Yeo got his first major appointment, as minister of the environment and countryside, in 1992. Major was launching a new Conservative Party manifesto, called Back to Basics, which emphasized traditional values and public morality, among other things. Yeo committed to this manifesto and even spoke out against increases in benefits for single-parent families.

However, while working in London away from his family in 1992 and 1993, Yeo had struck up a sexual liaison with Julia Stent, a young attorney in her early thirties, through her involvement with Hackney Borough Council as a Conservative councillor. Stent became pregnant, and she had a child in July, 1993. The affair and child were hushed up at the time, but finally came to the attention of Horrigan on the day after Christmas, 1993. Horrigan believed Yeo had betrayed the Back to Basics campaign and called a meeting of the constituency committee to discuss the matter, hoping to censure Yeo.

Inevitably, the story broke, and in a short time made sensational national headlines, especially with the popular, tabloid press. Yeo admitted he had been “foolish” over the affair, but at first stated he saw no reason to resign. He did not feel his stand on family values was compromised. Although his fellow government ministers uttered general support for him, there was a feeling that if the local party did not back him, he would need to leave office. Several previous ministers, including David Mellor and Michael Mates, were forced to resign in similar circumstances, even though Prime Minister Major had supported them.

Debate was confused at this point. Major insisted his Back to Basics program was not about private morality but rather about methods of delivery. Stent refused to comment on what she considered a private matter. On the other hand, the archbishop of York had weighed in, accusing political leaders of moral and spiritual bankruptcy, and Labour Party leader John Smith accused the government of being in retreat on its own manifesto. Plenty of earlier statements by Conservative leaders showed that they did indeed include private morality and family responsibility in their campaign. Sir Norman Fowler, the party leader, was accused of letting the affair drift out of control.

Above all, the deafening silence of the local constituency party and its failure to publicly support Yeo at its meeting on January 4 forced Yeo’s resignation from his government position the following day. However, the call to deselect him altogether as a local MP failed at a branch meeting held on January 14, and he retained his seat in Parliament.

Impact

For Major’s government, the Yeo-Stent affair and Yeo’s subsequent resignation were major blows to its Conservative agenda. The prime minister had to enter into a damage-limitation exercise, redefining what the term Back to Basics meant. In the end, however, this attempt only trivialized the campaign, and it was scrapped.

The Yeo affair became one of a long list of resignations forced on government ministers because of sexual affairs and other indiscretions. When this later became compounded by internal divisions over the European Union, Major’s government was considered ineffective and weak. In the 1997 elections, the Conservatives suffered a landslide defeat, as a victorious Labour Party swept in under the youthful new prime minister, Tony Blair.

Yeo suffered much less than he might have. He retained his seat in the safe Suffolk constituency and was appointed by the new Conservative Party leader, William Hague, as spokesperson on environment, transport, and the regions. Under the next party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, Yeo was made a member of the shadow cabinet, as shadow secretary of state from trade and industry. In 2001, as shadow minister of agriculture, he played a leading role in exposing the Labour government’s mishandling of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic. In 2003, under new leader Michael Howard, he became shadow education and health secretary. In the leadership contest following the party’s defeat in the general election, Yeo was briefly considered as a possible candidate. In fact, in the new Parliament he became chairman of the House of Commons environmental audit select committee. His career diversified as well as he became a writer on agricultural topics and a business speaker. Major, John [p]Major, John;and Tim Yeo[Yeo] Stent, Julia Yeo, Tim

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Alan. Diaries: In Power. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003. Clark’s diaries recount the Thatcher and Major years of government and give intimate details into the affairs and indiscretions of a number of ministers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Major, John. The Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Contains Major’s perspectives on Yeo’s resignation, putting it in context of the wider Back to Basics campaign.
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    The Times, London, January 5-6, 1994. Gives a restrained view of the breaking scandal of Yeo’s affair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodhouse, Diana. Ministers and Parliament: Accountability in Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Woodhouse examines the resignation scandals of modern British politics, seeing patterns of responsibility and accountability.

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